Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

by CPA Assist

By: Brian Forbes, Ph.D, R.Psych
Forbes Psychological Services

Studies have shown that most people experience some alteration in mood or behaviour with the changing seasons, and that for about 2% to 3% of the general population, these changes are problematic. For these individuals, the shortening days of late autumn are the beginning of a type of clinical depression that can last until spring. This condition is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). A mild form of SAD, referred to as the “winter blues,” causes discomfort, but it is not incapacitating. Fifteen percent of the general population experience this less severe form of SAD. The term “winter blues,” however, can be misleading, as some people experience a rarer form of SAD, summer depression, which usually begins in late spring or early summer.

SAD may affect some children and teenagers, but it generally begins in those over the age of 20. The risk of SAD decreases with age. The condition is more common in women that in men, but men may experience more severe symptoms.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter depression) symptoms may include: depression; hopelessness; anxiety; loss of energy; social withdrawal; oversleeping; loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed; appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates; weight gain; difficulty concentrating; and irritability. Summer onset seasonal effective disorder symptoms may include: anxiety; insomnia; irritability; agitation; weight loss; poor appetite; and increased sex drive.

What Causes SAD

What causes SAD is a difficult question to answer. Despite ongoing research there is no confirmed cause; however, it is likely, as with other mental health conditions, that genetics, age and perhaps most importantly, your chemical makeup, all play a role in the condition’s development. Some other more specific factors that may contribute to the development of SAD include your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock, which lets you know when to sleep and when to wake. This disruption may lead to feelings of depression.

A second factor may be serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood and may also play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger a depression. Finally, melatonin levels may play a role in the development of SAD, in that a change in season can disrupt the balance of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and moods.

Research has shown that there are some factors that may increase your risk of SAD. These factors include: being female; living far from the equator in the far north or south due to decreased sunlight during the winter; a family history of SAD; and having a pre-existing clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

Treatment for SAD

Treatment for SAD may include light therapy, medications and psychotherapy. In light therapy, also called phototherapy, you sit a few feet from a special florescent light box for several minutes a day. Light therapy mimics outdoor light and appears to cause a change in brain chemicals linked to mood. A health care professional should be consulted before beginning light therapy.

Some people with SAD benefit from antidepressant medication, especially if the symptoms are severe. Your physician may recommend starting this type of treatment before symptoms typically begin each year. It is important to remember that it may take a few weeks to notice the full benefits of an antidepressant.

Psychotherapy is another option to treat SAD. While SAD is thought to be related to brain chemistry, your mood and behaviour can also exacerbate your symptoms. Psychotherapy can help you identify and change negative thoughts and behaviours that may be making you feel worse. You can also learn ways to cope more effectively with your stress and anxiety.

In addition to the above suggested treatments, there are measures you can take on your own that may help. These include: making your home and work environment sunnier and brighter; going outside during the day and taking a walk; exercising regularly as exercise relieves stress, builds energy and increases your mental and physical well-being; and monitoring your diet, resisting carbohydrates; and if possible, taking winter vacations in sunny warm locations.

If you or someone you know is struggling with SAD or other mental health issues, please reach out. CPA Assist provides confidential 24/7 help to Alberta Chartered Professional Accountants, candidates, and their immediate families. Call for 24-hour toll-free confidential support at 1-855-596-4222.

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